Bringing the Outside In

Innovation makes the unlikeliest of bedfellows

I have just started work on a new writing project whose mission is to define the skills that CIOs need to navigate their businesses through what can only be described as an age of tremendous technology innovation.

Cloud, social, mobile, and the Internet of Things are changing the way people work, live, travel, communicate, and think about the world. And while it will be another few decades, I would imagine, before we truly understand the social impact of all of this innovation, but one thing is for certain: businesses are changing.

Businesses no longer call the shots about how, when and where they will meet their customers. Businesses no longer present an impenetrable boundary between themselves and their partners and competitors. Businesses are no longer secure from a global force of agitators intent on mayhem and harm. Businesses can no longer count on the long-term fidelity of their employees.

Since so much of this technology-driven business transformation falls squarely in the purview of IT, the role of the CIO is undergoing some fairly dramatic change.

The Changing CIO

How are CIOs experiencing this change?  How are they altering their IT operating model?  What skills are they hiring now and how are they restructuring IT?  And most significantly, what are the competencies of those CIOs who are stepping into the new leadership role that all of this innovation provides?

In my blog here on, I would like to test out – from time to time -- some of the ideas I am developing for this project. As I throw out a competency or two, dear readers, please post a comment, shoot me an email, or respond to me via The Heller Report, and let me know your reaction. 

Do you agree that the competency I describe is a critical one? Do you have an example of how you are developing that competency in your own work?  In our age of innovation, writers have the opportunity to develop content in a much more iterative way. Let me know your thoughts!  (As always, I will not publish your comments without your explicit permission.)

Bringing the Outside In

The competency I’d like to address this week is something I am calling, “bringing the outside in.” A few months ago, I asked the CIO of a large global manufacturer, “What is your key competency?” and he responded, “My job as CIO is to look at the technology marketplace and bring new ideas to our executive committee that will change the very fundamentals of what we do.” 

This CIO is not alone.  Jim Swanson, CIO of $16B agricultural company, Monsanto, and his team are using Cargo View, a sensor technology that AT&T developed to help companies monitor their shipments around the world.  “Think about a product coming off a farm and going to a manufacturing plant,” says Swanson. “Using sensor technologies, we can track that shipment, look at quality and change routing logistics based on distance. “This would allow us to prevent product quality loss, which is an important objective for us.”  When AT&T developed Cargo View, they most likely did not have agricultural companies specifically in mind; Swanson and his team saw the possibilities and brought the innovation home.

John Burke, CIO of Ambit Energy, was having a “big application problem,” and looked to Amazon – far afield from the energy industry – for inspiration.   “People were talking about an edict that Jeff Bezos gave to his development team at Amazon when they hit their own ‘big application’ problem,” Burke says. “Bezos told them, ‘You need to take your own piece of the large application and rip it out from the rest.  As long as you provide APIs to the large application, you can write your own piece in any language. But your little interfaces have to always be working.” 

So, Burke held an open discussion with his development team about following Amazon’s lead. “There was a small minority of sharp developers who thought it was possible, so we decided to give it a shot,” he says. Today, Burke and his team are in automated continuous delivery heaven.  “We are doing roughly 34 deployments a day and we never see a hiccup. Our business teams are on fire because they come to work with a purpose and get things done.”

IT organizations, it is true, have a host of internal responsibilities but they have to balance their time. Get out of your office, we remind CIOs, and look your customers in the eye.  But taking a break from internal operations to meet your customers is only one piece of your external obligations.  “Bringing the outside in,” means looking for innovation in industries, companies and communities that five years ago would have seemed irrelevant. Technology innovation, it seems, makes the unlikeliest of bedfellows.


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